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Chapter 11

Focus On The Context

System, Organization, Culture, and Timing

Influencing in an Open System

It's all very well to know everything you can about the person you are going to influence and the issue you are going to influence about. You can even be exceptionally good at the influence behaviors you have decided to use and still end up without the result you hoped for - or with one that makes your worst case scenario look like a tea party.

Often that is because you have left a few important things out of your analysis, and they turned out to be the most important ingredients. It's as if your great-aunt Jane gave you the recipe for her famous chocolate cake, but just happened to leave out one or two items, and the cake turned out flat and tasted like chalk.

The reason that so many good influence intentions come to naught is that you are almost never dealing with a tabula rasa - a blank slate - a situation completely divorced from other realities.

The slate has been written on. Every influence opportunity is part of a larger, open system that involves a variety of other issues, people, organizations, cultures, and other things, tangible or intangible, that exist in or out of time and space. Any one of them can override your best plans or make your needs irrelevant. An "open system" is one that receives information from outside of itself (inputs), transforms it, and sends information back out (outputs). This is a good description of the organizations we work in and the families we are a part of. Many of the elements that enter an open system are outside of your sphere of influence, but should affect the way you choose to approach the influence opportunity. For example, you may wish to influence a senior manager to make a commitment to an important project. You have planned your approach for some time and have aligned it with the strategic business goals of the company. You have just learned that a large firm from another country has acquired the company. You must assume that the strategic business goals have changed. This will affect the way you approach the manager.

Since you are not going to be able to control, influence, or even know about all the important inputs to the system, the only defense is to ask yourself a few questions about absolutely anything that could derail or, for that matter, enhance your attempt to influence. You need to begin by scanning the system for what could cause problems or help you, and then "debugging" or adjusting your approach to take these issues into account. Usually you'll find that there are some current and compelling issues related to the person you are trying to influence, such as competing priorities and deadlines. Maybe there are other people who are important to the person's decision and who have an issue with you or your idea. There will be some bugs within the organization if one is involved, such as "hot buttons" (words, concepts, or ideas that stimulate a strong reaction because of historical associations), major initiatives, or competitive pressures. There may be some industry or cultural imperatives that you can't ignore. And, of course, there may be trends and issues in the world surrounding the system that can promote or prevent your idea from receiving a fair hearing at this time.

In Appendix B, you'll find a list of questions that will help you explore the system you are working within so that you can take advantage of opportunities or deal with problems as part of your influence planning process. By using them, you can create a better fit between your idea or proposal and the system within which you are influencing.

Organizations, Teams, and Families

Every human organization has its own current issues and priorities, its own way of operating, its own structure and politics. For example, in my family of origin, issues that were emotional were dealt with when my father was out of town; he did not enjoy conflict. My brother and I soon learned that if we brought up a contentious issue (that he and I agreed about) when Dad was around, we would often end up with a better deal from our more peace-loving parent than if we left it for our mother to settle with us. Knowing how the power structure works is useful. Equally important is an understanding of the current strategy, goals, and priorities. It is far easier to sell an idea that is aligned with those goals and priorities than one that is tangential.

To develop a better fit between your idea and the organization, focus first on where the organization is expending the most energy.

If you can communicate how your idea solves a key organizational problem, supports important priorities, or speeds the way to achieving an important goal, you have a much better chance of success.

Next, review the organization's structures and processes to make sure that you develop an approach that aligns with the way the organization (or team, or family) works. Study the norms or ground rules that suggest who to approach, and how and when to approach him or her. For example, my company sells training and development services. In some organizations, we are more successful when we deal with senior leaders directly. In others, we enter through the Human Resources or Organization Development groups, because they are in a strategic role and, as our colleagues, want to be in the loop.

Culture Is Context

Just as we assume that the fish has no concept of water, we seldom think about culture. It's just there - unless, of course, we find ourselves in one that is different from our own. And even then it takes work to realize that the Italians are not driving like that just to annoy you and the Japanese are not deliberately dragging out the preliminaries to the negotiation in order to wear you down. Culture can be national, regional, ethnic, or organizational. Professions and industries have cultures; even families, departments, and teams develop a set of norms, values, rituals, and taboos that can be seen as cultures. Cultural practices drive a great deal of behavior that is below our awareness and easy for others to misinterpret.

The ability to recognize when behavior is cultural rather than tactical (deliberately chosen to achieve a goal) is very useful to the influencer in reading the situation. Understanding the cultural context also helps you shape your influence approach in a way that will be a better fit for the person or group you are influencing. For example, the culture of a research and development organization is likely to be one in which expertise and reputation are highly valued. You would be well-advised to brush up on your chemistry or physics or (preferably) bring along someone whom the other person respects professionally if your influence opportunity involves anything remotely technical.

Timing Is Everything - Almost

Knowing what to do is one thing, and knowing when to do it is another. Once we have decided to take on an influence task and have prepared for it, it can be difficult to stop and wait. But timing has to be part of your recipe for success. There are times when moving on something quickly before the other person has too many options to deal with is the right thing to do. Sometimes it makes sense to wait until there are fewer demands on his or her attention or for a time when the issue is on his or her screen. Often, you will want to carry out your plan in stages. Nothing works all the time, but a well-thought-out plan considers timing as well as approach.

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